A Beet Paradox

Beets are the new broccoli. Or at least they will be after Obama takes office on January 20, as the president-elect recently revealed his distaste for this vitamin-laden root vegetable. And Obama is not alone: Even as beet salads have become popular in trendy eateries, most American kids I know also reject the mighty beet.

It’s a curious thing. You see, I grew up in Australia, where just about everyone seems to love eating beets, especially kids. In fact, even those kids who wrinkle their noses at other vegetables still love beets (or “beetroot” to an Aussie). When I arrived in the U.S., I was stunned to find Americans don’t add beetroot to their burgers. In Australia, beetroot on a burger is a given. In fact, during my undergraduate days the student cafeteria stopped serving beetroot on their burgers; I ran for election to the Sydney Uni student union partly on the platform of restoring beetroot on the burgers. (Obama should be careful, beetroot-lovers are a powerful constituency: I was elected in a landslide.)

Even McDonald’s understands the beet imperative, adding a healthy slice to their McOz burgers. And these aren’t fancy beets; the simple canned beets you get from the supermarket will improve any burger. Try it — you will thank me. With more adult tastes, I now prefer my beets roasted, perhaps with goat’s cheese.

But my point isn’t about how best to enjoy your beet, my point is the Beet Paradox: Why is it that American and Australian children have such different reactions to such a simple vegetable? The rest of our diets are pretty similar; our upbringing is similar, and so are the broader social and economic milieus which shape us. Yet the same food elicits starkly different reactions. Why?

And the Beet Paradox forces all of us economists to ask: Can we really treat preferences as exogenous and stable?


James

When I emigrated to the US, also from Australia, I experienced a similar phenomenon. Of course, here in the US the burgers are simply exemplary. Even when taking the beetroot-laden Aussie-style burger into account, is there perhaps a correlation between the lack of beetroot on burgers and the quality of the burgers themselves? Perhaps adding beetroot simply disguises an otherwise bland burger.

DJH

I'm not sure there's much of a "paradox" at work here; rather we may merely be seeing human nature for what it is.

Food preferences tend to be very localized. Even inside the US, as homogeneous as it is, there are strong regional preferences. I grew up, and currently live, in New England where ketchup (catsup?) is an oft-used condiment, on everything from burgers to hot dogs to scrambled eggs. But elsewhere in the US it's not as common ... and I've never seen it used on eggs anywhere else.

The incredible variety of regional cuisines within Italy are legendary, providing another example of the same phenomenon. While I haven't been to Australia, I must assume there are regional cuisine preferences there too, as there are in any sizeable country. I know Oz has some foods which are rare or unavailable in other English-speaking or Commonwealth countries, such as vegemite.

I can offer no explanation for the regional-specialization of foods, other than to suppose it might be related to the phenomenon of dialect variation in languages. When people cluster, they tend to adopt similarities of behavior (linguistic, gastronomic, or otherwise) which aren't found outside the group. That our world of media saturation and instant contact outside of regional groups hasn't abated these differences, suggests this tendency is somehow innate.

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Diversity

Stigler and Becker faced the question of whether preferences are exogenous and stable. Most of us economists just duck it.

Apart from the transcendent question you raise (which may threaten the Economist's Big Mac Index?), any one who has absorbed a history book, travelled with their eyes and/or noses open, or told the grandchildren what things were like when they were young, will have realised that tastes are caught from the people round one, and change with time.

The issue on which economists will no longer be able to duck including this reality in our calculus is global warming. We need to include as an important variable for policy decisions our best estimate of how people a hundred or more years hence will value different policy outcomes. There is no reason to expect their valuations to be identical with ours.

Chip

I've been putting beets on my burgers often since our honeymoon in Sydney. Loved them since I was a kid. Can't figure out why my kids don't. Roasted beets, hmm... Time to try something new!

Ross

Similar tastes?

One word.

Vegemite.

Ari

When he says no thanks to Putin's offer of Borscht Soup will that re-incite the cold war?

Rob

The beetroot is just evil. I feel inspired by the prospect of a fellow beetroot hater in the Whitehouse.

kdg

The only people I know who like beets are over 60. They have cafeteria food written all over them. They bleed pink. What more do you need?

Jim Kiley

My understanding is that Australians dislike root beer. And God knows Americans can't stand vegemite.

RUBBA

You don't have to travel far to see stark reactions. Outside of New York, you get mustard on your hambuger.

Marcus

Could it come down to connotations?

The "beetroot", McOz and other Aussie preparations in a land of multiple growing seasons = fresh, alluring, exotic...

Polish grandparent cooking, canned sidedishes and other common North American tie-ins for beets = staid, unattractive

(No offense to good Polish cooking - I love a nice borscht.)

Craig

So, are the beets raw or cooked before putting them on the burger? How well do canned beets work on burgers?

Ed Haines

I have always believed that the best way to encourage children to enjoy good food is to let them see me enjoying good food. When the grandkids come to visit, they see me eating lots of fruit and fresh veggies and soon ask for more themselves.

PaulK

It may be as simple as kids in the US get pickles (pickled cucumber vs. pickled beetroot) with hamburgers and other foods. Once you develop a taste for pickled cucumber (especially with dill), beets always taste artificial (at least to me).

Mark

I can't speak for wider American tastes in root vegetables, but for my part, I thought beets awful until a handful of years ago. As a child, my only experience was with canned beets and borscht from a jar. I found both dreadful and would avoid them under pain of no dinner at all. My daughter, who was receiving boxes of fresh produce from a farm each week, had me over for dinner and prepared a platter of roasted vegetables which included both red & golden beets. She warned of their presence, offered that I could avoid them, but that I should try them, expecting to be pleasantly surprised. Long story short, roasted beets are on the menu weekly save for the few hottest months of the year when I avoid using the oven. Nearly everyone I've served them to has had their opinion favorably altered.

KarenS

Australians are also fond of vegemite, right? If you can get kids to eat vegemite, getting them to enjoy beets shouldn't be a problem.

(Of course, non-Americans would probably say the same about peanut butter.)

Jim Farmer

Kids don't grow up in a vacuum. I think it's partly a reflection of the preferences around them (parents, friends, media, etc.). Similar to the discussion thread about wine taste tests, the state of mind has an effect on the taste of an item. Personally, I love beets, but so did my parents. I think Dwight Schrute should weight in on this ;)

Adam

I don't know about anyone else, but the only beets I've experienced are pickled beets. Perhaps fresh beet root on your burger is the way to go?

doc

Looking at this from the other side of the question, I remember getting off the ferry between the north and south islands of New Zealand and ordering hamburgers at a snack bar in the park right off the landing, As I bit into my burger and discovered BEET! I turned to see the ferrry steaming back to the north island. Aaargh. Stranded in a land where they put beets on burgers We loved the south island, but it took a prodigious amount of Lion Brown to wash down that first bite and the lingering after-taste.

Beets belong in baby food and trendoid salads, not burgers. Now that I have Aussie family members, this pormises to be an eternal argument.

Doc

Joe T

Beets taste like dirt. From the lowliest canned variety to the roasted organics at great restaurants, every beet I've ever had has tasted awful. I'm done having an open mind about it. I won't be trying any more beets no matter how good someone says they are.